Monday, June 25, 2012

Moving from "Just Us" to Justice: Building Hope in Nehemiah - A Sermon

Good morning. It’s an honor to be before you this morning and have the privilege of opening God’s Word together with you. Please join along with me, by opening your bibles, your phones, or your apps to Nehemiah chapter 5 as we continue our series “Hope Builders: Learning from Nehemiah, God will bless...your discontent!” The title for today’s sermon is Building Justice as we find ourselves in chapter 5 and as Nehemiah leads the efforts to build hope, to specifically rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, along the way he is confronted with issues of injustice. Now as I prepared for this sermon, I had a certain degree of apprehension and anxiety in doing so. You see there are certain topics that pastors aren’t always the most excited about delivering. In fact I read an article this week that polled pastors and over half of the ones that responded said there were certain topics that they flat out would not preach at all or sparingly. Can you guess what number 1 was? This is like that game show where you guess the percentages – I believe it was called family feud. Well here are the results and actually, these are such hot topics I don’t even feel super comfortable even just reading them to you:

Politics - 38 percent
Homosexuality - 23 percent
Abortion - 18 percent
Same-sex marriage - 17 percent
War - 17 percent
Women's role in church and home - 13 percent
The doctrine of election - 13 percent
Hell - 7 percent
Money - 3 percent

So as I prepared this sermon I had a bit of apprehension because of the association that the word justice has with politics. Especially the term “social justice” has really become politically charged. People leave churches at the very mentioning of the term. So all that to say I just want to assure you, and to avoid an avalanche of political emails to which I’m ill-equipped to respond to, I am not pushing a political agenda. I’m going to try to avoid the phrase “social justice” like the plague because what we’re looking at today isn’t something that is republican, or independent, or democrat. I pray that today, as whenever I have the honor to preach, that we will look at what God’s Word says to us. Sometimes, we as preachers, like to avoid hot button topics, but if we are to take seriously 2 Tim. 3:16, that “All of scripture is God breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” then we must submit ourselves to all of it and friends the word justice is unavoidable when we read scripture. The word itself occurs at least 134 times, based on my own search, and the concept of justice, though different words are used, is part of the very DNA of God’s revelation, His Word. In our passage for today we find that Nehemiah is confronted with some real justice issues. He’s focused on rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, but he also understands that his call is not only about the specific mission he’s doing, but also, along the way, to embody the values of God, one of which is to have a justice mentality. If we don’t have this yet, then we must move from a “just us” mentality to a justice mentality. We, as children of God, and followers of Christ, are called to be concerned not only with our own projects, our own building, our own designs, even if they are what we are called to and are doing to advance God’s kingdom, but we are called also to be concerned for the poor, the outcast, and systems of injustice. Here are a few key verses, probably ringing in Nehemiah’s heart as it should in our own:

"Cursed is the man who withholds justice from the alien, the fatherless or the widow." Then all the people shall say, "Amen!"  Deuteronomy 27:19

This passage points out the alien, the fatherless, and the widow. In other words, these are people that were not able to fend for themselves and had no support system. We find that God has a heart for justice and we, as God’s people, have a moral obligation to care for the oppressed, the outcast, the hopeless, who in many ways find the very structures of a fallen world, of a fallen society, against them. Here’s just a couple more:

“For the LORD is righteous, he loves justice; upright men will see his face.” Psalm 11:7

"[L]earn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.” Isaiah 1:17

And finally from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ:

                “"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices-- mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law-- justice,   mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.” Matthew 23:23

Justice is one of the “more important matters”, some translations say the “weightier matters”. How important is mercy in your walk as follower of Christ, as a child of God? How important is faithfulness in your walk with Christ, as a child of God? How important is justice in your walk with Christ, as a child of God? So as we turn to God’s Word today, I encourage us all to remember, this is just that, the Word of God. While as a human being my illustrations may be flawed and the way in which I communicate always needs work, as much as I speak according to the Word of God, it is as though God himself is speaking to you today on matters of justice.  Look with me at the first seven verses of chapter 5:

Now the men and their wives raised a great outcry against their Jewish brothers. 2 Some were saying, "We and our sons and daughters are numerous; in order for us to eat and stay alive, we must get grain." 3 Others were saying, "We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards and our homes to get grain during the famine." 4 Still others were saying, "We have had to borrow money to pay the king's tax on our fields and vineyards. 5 Although we are of the same flesh and blood as our countrymen and though our sons are as good as theirs, yet we have to subject our sons and daughters to slavery. Some of our daughters have already been enslaved, but we are powerless, because our fields and our vineyards belong to others." 6 When I heard their outcry and these charges, I was very angry. 7 I pondered them in my mind and then accused the nobles and officials.

So we read that there was a problem going on here and at the end of this section how does Nehemiah respond? Nehemiah could ignore the “great outcry” and respond by saying “press on!” Let’s press on and take the hill! There will be causalities but let’s rebuild these walls! Instead of putting them to the side, Nehemiah rather, along the way in his rebuilding efforts, listens to these issues of justice. So what does Nehemiah hear in his context and what do we hear in our own? Well we read that a wide part of the community is on the brink of economic ruin and collapse. There are those without land who see their food supplies running out, there are those who have land that they’ve mortgaged in order to make it through the difficult times, some who are having to take out loans to pay the high taxes on the populace, and others who are so far in trouble that they’ve had to hire out their children as bond-servants. It could be that these problems were created by the rebuilding program of Nehemiah, but more likely the rebuilding brought to light problems long simmering that came bubbling up during the reconstruction. Overall long term problems resulting from the famine mentioned in verse three and the high levels of taxation and corruption historically known to be a part of the Persian empire. So in summary, a wide breadth of people in Nehmiah’s community are in a time of economic trouble and they are crying out for help. Nehemiah chose to listen and act.

Now, does this sound like anything that we can apply to our current situation today? I read a recent article in Florida Today that reported despite the rumors of an improving economy, that there are more jobs and unemployment rates are going down, and certain areas of the economy are seeing growth, the hungry in Brevard county, our county, our community, our extended family is not letting up. “About 16.4% of Brevard residents – nearly 89,000 – are food insecure, meaning they don’t have access to enough food for an active, healthy life at all time…” South Brevard Sharing Center, one of our mission partners, reported that it “still sees about 100 to 200 newly unemployed families come in its doors each month signing up for services.”  Daily Bread, another organization we partner with in mission and where members of your church community served yesterday, has seen an increase in the numbers of meals served averaging around 237 since October and some days serving over 300 people. So in summary, a wide breadth of people in our own communties are in a time of economic trouble and they are crying out for help. Nehemiah chose to listen and act.

In Nehemiah’s case we read that, even though he is focused on rebuilding the wall, he hears and he is what? He’s angry! Nehemiah, discontent about the state of Jerusalem, along the way hears the issues of justice and has a new dimension to his holy discontent! There are times, even when we are focused on something important like building our own programs, or perhaps focusing on how to effectively tell the gospel to our friends and neighbors, that along the way we listen to issues of justice that come bubbling up as we build hope and rather than putting them aside gain a whole new dimension to our discontent along the way. Nehemiah gets angry, but then we read in the first part of verse 7 that he reflected, he ponders them in his mind before moving forward with a carefully aimed charge and solution.

So how did Nehemiah move forward after reflecting? We read in verses 7b-13.

I pondered them in my mind and then accused the nobles and officials. I told them, "You are exacting usury from your own countrymen!" So I called together a large meeting to deal with them 8 and said: "As far as possible, we have bought back our Jewish brothers who were sold to the Gentiles. Now you are selling your brothers, only for them to be sold back to us!" They kept quiet, because they could find nothing to say. 9 So I continued, "What you are doing is not right. Shouldn't you walk in the fear of our God to avoid the reproach of our Gentile enemies? 10 I and my brothers and my men are also lending the people money and grain. But let the exacting of usury stop! 11 Give back to them immediately their fields, vineyards, olive groves and houses, and also the usury you are charging them-- the hundredth part of the money, grain, new wine and oil." 12 "We will give it back," they said. "And we will not demand anything more from them. We will do as you say." Then I summoned the priests and made the nobles and officials take an oath to do what they had promised. 13 I also shook out the folds of my robe and said, "In this way may God shake out of his house and possessions every man who does not keep this promise. So may such a man be shaken out and emptied!" At this the whole assembly said, "Amen," and praised the LORD. And the people did as they had promised.

Jason Caro during the workday 
Nehemiah moves forward, not alone, but by involving the community to enact justice. We must involve the community to enact justice. We read that Nehemiah draws together a large meeting and he involves the population at large. He identifies himself as being part of the community and even a part of the problem as he says in verse 10 that he is also lending out money and grain to the people in need. Nehemiah presses this gathering to not think just about their own gains, the financial opportunity they have to increase their wealth, but to move for a “just us” mentality to a justice mentality. Nehemiah, gives the community a direct challenge to charity and generosity. Nehemiah involves the community because number one: we are designed like our Trinitarian God; to be in fellowship with one another and to work together to see His kingdom come and number two: because sometimes the issues of justice are too big and ingrained into the societal structures to not be required to work together as a community. One of the first mission partners we served with this summer in our “Summer of Service” was Space Coast Center for Mothers with children and when I was there I heard a story about one of the women. And by the way you can read this mother’s own account here.  She lost custody of her daughter to her ex-husband. The report said that “the child was well cared for by her mother. There was food in the home, the girls were well groomed, the home was clean, nothing to show she was a bad mother…[but that] the husband had a car, a wife (of one day), a job, and could take the child on vacations.” In other words this mother lost custody of her child because she was poor. This isn’t the only case of injustice, where those with more money end up with what they want simply because they have more money! Now we can help individually, and through our partner at Space Coast Center for Mothers with children we are, but stories like this hopefully lead us to realize that we need to sometimes act together, as a community, because the issues of justice are too big and ingrained into the societal structures to not be required to work together as a community.

So we involve the community to enact justice, but also as we continue to read the final verses of this chapter, we recognize that we must also individually embody biblical justice.

Moreover, from the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, until his thirty-second year-- twelve years-- neither I nor my brothers ate the food allotted to the governor. 15 But the earlier governors-- those preceding me-- placed a heavy burden on the people and took forty shekels of silver from them in addition to food and wine. Their assistants also lorded it over the people. But out of reverence for God I did not act like that. 16 Instead, I devoted myself to the work on this wall. All my men were assembled there for the work; we did not acquire any land. 17 Furthermore, a hundred and fifty Jews and officials ate at my table, as well as those who came to us from the surrounding nations. 18 Each day one ox, six choice sheep and some poultry were prepared for me, and every ten days an abundant supply of wine of all kinds. In spite of all this, I never demanded the food allotted to the governor, because the demands were heavy on these people. 19 Remember me with favor, O my God, for all I have done for these people.

In our passage we read that Nehemiah personally bends over backwards and sacrificed what was normally his due. Nehemiah recognizes that a huge part of the problem is the system of taxation and individually, as governor of the province, both gives up his right for a salary and provides an open meal for hundreds of people. In order to ease the burden of taxation, he works as governor of the province for free, even though clearly it was his right to collect a salary and to help alleviate hunger he provides a lavish meal. We read about this model again later in the New Testament when Paul writes about his own right to receive support from congregations as an apostle of the Gospel. He writes in 1 Corinthians 9:12b, printed in your bulletin:

Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ.”

Nehemiah, and Paul, are guided by service rather than opportunism and they both guide the community through their personal example to see that generosity is to be preferred to personal gain. We as individuals must give up our own rights and embody biblical justice so as not to put any obstacle in the way of the gospel in the way of His kingdom.

Nehemiah uses his place of influence and leadership to urge creditors to relinquish their rights by returning the lands and interest gathered to those in hard places financially. Then personally he, himself relinquishes his own rights as governor. Could you imagine what our communities would look like if we demonstrated this kind of love? Could you imagine a situation where the wealthy in our community gave so liberally of themselves to ease the plight of the poor? Releasing debts, returning lands? How amazing it would be if we moved from a “just us” mentality to a justice mentality and listened to the issues of justice both together as a community and in our individual lives. 

But when we think about it, is it really so hard to imagine for followers of one who gave up his life for our own release of debt, and for our own return to an eternal inheritance? We give praise and thanks that Jesus didn't take a “just us” mentality and remain in heaven, but rather entered into our situation, listening and bringing us into community with him, granting us new hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit. Our lives are not our own, our material possessions are not our own. Let us encourage one another to have a heart for others, a heart like our Father in heaven, a heart for justice.

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